In 2015 I came across a bizarre news story. A statue in County Derry had been cut down. The unfortunate statue was a representation of the old Irish Sea God Mannan Mac Lir, standing in half a boat, arms outstretched as he faced a lake and commanded the waves. Next to the desecrated piece of public art was left a cross with the words, ‘You shall have no other gods before me’. The statue was considered missing for a month until some soldiers found it while out training. The statue had been dumped in a ditch 300 metres from its original position.
The story immediately caught my interest. The individuals responsible for the vandalism were religious motivated, believing that a piece of secular art that references a half-remembered pagan past was really a graven image of a heathen god. These vandals also assumed for themselves the right to destroy a public good, in the pursuit of an odd interpretation of the Old Testament prohibitions against making images of God’s other than Yahweh.
The detail that I really couldn’t get over was the fact that they’d only made it 300 metres from their crime scene before deciding to dump the thing. This may have been their plan all along, to simply cut up the statue in the (ultimately vanquished) hope that no one be bothered to put it back together again. I preferred to imagine a group of men who had been unprepared for the logistics of the strange task they had set themselves.
The act of vandalism seemed to me to be a sort of unintentional tribute to the power of the art. If the statue had been rubbish, had not effectively communicated the power of the old Irish myths, would anyone have bothered destroying it? There are plenty of non-Christian monuments in Northern Ireland, and very few are attacked. In feeling the need to destroy the artwork the group of vandals had paid an ironic compliment to the artist behind it.
I thought that the mindset of such a group would be interesting to follow so I began to write a short story about it. I completed a fairly conventional story at a leisurely pace and then forgot about it for three years. Last year I re-read the original draft and felt that all I had succeeded in doing was to make an interesting story seem quite dull.
To try and do justice to the source material I went back and re-wrote my story. My goal was to get closer to the mindset of the individuals involved. To that end, I used a stream-of-consciousness style. I understand this might make the story somewhat difficult to get into, but I hope that readers will adapt to the syntax and structure of the sentences after a page or two. I’m no Eimear McBride, but I hope some readers will find some value in the completed piece. I was very happy when I heard that the Honest Ulsterman would publish the story, and soI reshare it with you now.
The title references two religious figures I feel relevant to this story. Mannan Mac Lir is obviously a presence in matters, but the second is never referenced by the narrator or his comrades. Balaam is a figure from the old testament book of numbers. A non-Jewish priest and sorcerer, he is called upon by a local king (Balak of Moab) to curse the nation of Israel as it wanders through the desert.
Despite not being Jewish, Balaam is still a follower of Yahweh and able to commune with the God of Israel. Three times he builds altars overlooking Israelites, and three times is he unable to speak a curse that Yahweh will not utter against his chosen nation. Indeed, he actually speaks blessings over the assembled people. In seeking to destroy and damn something, Balak and Balaam pay unintentional tribute to it. I admit this is not a subtle title but I hope it at least reinforces the stories’ themes.
I hope you enjoy the story, and that you follow the Honest Ulsterman. It’s a quality online magazine, one that carries a lot of talented writers. I feel very lucky to be included in this issue, and satisfied to finally share this long-gestated story that has intrigued me for so long.